The New Mister Natural

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There are plenty of things that make the followers of Gary Null different from everybody else. For one thing, they may be getting younger--"de-aging," as Null puts it. For another, they may never have to worry about going bald.

There's a lot to be said for getting younger and reversing balding, as there is for the other medical wonders Null offers: natural treatments for cancer and heart disease, alternative ways to combat allergies and AIDS. And Null is saying it all loudly. In an increasingly Balkanized medical community, fractured by all manner of alternative therapies, Null, a Ph.D. in human nutrition and public-health science, is leading one of the biggest breakaway republics of all. Author of more than 50 books, host of a daily radio show and creator of two popular self-help videos, Null is preaching his good-health gospel to a growing band of believers following his path to long life and wellness.

The problem is some people are wondering whether that path leads anywhere at all. At the same time that Null's book, the 1,000-plus-page Get Healthy Now!, is exploding onto the best-seller list, questions are being raised about just what brand of medicine it is that he's out there peddling. In recent months there was vocal resistance within the public broadcasting network to showing Null's videos during pledge drives, in part because of concerns about the sensational claims he was making and the somewhat shaky science with which he backed them up. Other critics are uneasy about Null's shoot-from-the-hip style, his edgy tone and his conspicuous lack of a medical degree.

For all the controversy that surrounds him, there are plenty of reasons for Null's popularity. Much of his health regimen is pretty sound stuff, a common-sense soup of exercise, herbalism, diet and more, all served up in an easy-to-understand style. What's more, Null does not seem motivated by profit. He leads a health-support group in Manhattan and charges nothing for enrollment, and despite fierce bidding for his manuscripts, he often chooses small publishers, and then may defer royalties to help make the project affordable. Null, says Bob Marty, producer of the PBS shows, is "a pretty generous guy."

But there's another side to Null--a side that was first seen 20 years ago, when he was a contributing writer for Penthouse. One of Null's earliest stories was a blistering investigative piece called "The Great Cancer Fraud," in which he and a co-author accused the medical community of suppressing alternative cancer treatments in order to generate income for itself and the drug industry. Null's language was incendiary--condemning "the medical establishment's solid-gold cancer train"--but the magazine nonetheless ran the piece.

From a young reporter this is to be expected. But two decades later, Null, 54 is still warning of a variety of medical bogeymen out to gull a trusting public. Fluoridation of water, for example, was pressed on the U.S. by "public relations men and their industrial paymasters," he writes in Get Healthy Now! Even his recent problem at PBS, he implies, may have been an attempt to silence him. "The guardians of the gates of orthodoxy at PBS," he says darkly, "you don't know who their friends are."

More troubling is what Null recommends people do in response to the poor medical care they're receiving. In Get Healthy Now! he endorses a range of fringe cancer therapies, including anti-neoplastons (peptides derived in part from human urine). He takes a similarly radical approach to AIDS, raising a long-discredited argument that one of the reasons traditional therapies are ineffective is that it has never been proved that HIV plays as great a role in the disease as scientists believe.

Null sensibly warns patients with any serious illness never simply to discontinue conventional therapy. "If you wanted to see me and you had cancer, you would have to have your physician send a letter seeking my input," he says. But when you're selling books by the thousands, there's no way to control desperate readers' attempts to freelance themselves a cure. "That's precisely why people like Null are so problematic," comments Barrie Cassileth, chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at New York City's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Null has similar problems when he ventures beyond disease and offers advice on beauty and aging. One daily protocol he suggests for hair care calls for consuming more than 6,500 mg of a dozen different preparations, plus 6 oz. of sea vegetables and six glasses of dark-green vegetable juice. Most people would probably prefer just to switch shampoos. "Show me a single clinical trial that suggests this represents a rational approach," says Jeffrey Blumberg, professor of nutrition at Tufts University.

Null's hints that it may be possible not just to slow aging but to throw it into reverse raise hackles too. "It's ridiculous to talk about reversing aging," says Dr. Andrew Weil, a best-selling alternative-health author. "Aging is a one-way process."

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